Georgian Jews
Yehudim Gruzinim
qartveli ebraelebi

by Kevin Alan Brook

Jews have lived in the south Caucasian country of Georgia for over 2000 years. The Jews of Georgia are partly descended (at least paternally) from the ancient Israelites but appear to derive their maternal ancestry from other sources, probably including ethnic Georgian women who had converted to Judaism.

Some traditional settlement areas of Georgian Jews. The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire informs us: "The Georgian Jews live mostly in the eastern part of Georgia, in Tbilisi and other surrounding towns and small country villages." Other sources reveal the names of some of those other towns: Kutaisi, Kulashi, Gori, Akhaltsikhe, Oni, Sukhami, Poti, Batumi, Akhaltsikhe, Adigeni.

Cultural aspects of the Georgian Jews

Language. Their traditional language is known as Judeo-Georgian or Qivruli and was formed from a combination of Georgian and Hebrew. It has been written in the past using both the Georgian and Hebrew alphabets. But they also became familiar with the standard Georgian language and with other languages.

Occupations. In his book Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, Ken Blady wrote that Georgian Jews of pre-Soviet times worked as peddlers, shopkeepers, farmers, artisans, craftsmen, wine producers and sellers, and import-export traders (Blady, p. 142).

Names. Their surnames usually ended in -shvili ("son of") or -adze, like Christian Georgians (Blady, p. 138). Sepiashvili is one example.

Cuisine. In his February 22, 2011 article "The Jewish Palate: The origin of Shashlik" for the Jerusalem Post, Chef Dennis Wasko wrote this about Georgian Jewish food: "Unique aspects of the cuisine include the reliance on bread instead of pasta or rice, a variety of cold dishes, and a devotion to walnuts and walnut based sauces. [...] Shashlik is probably the best known Georgian dish that is prepared all over the world. It is simply cubes of lamb or beef marinated in wine vinegar and grilled on a skewer over hot coals. Served with warm bread and an assortment of salads, it is a delicious way to become familiar with the Jews of Georgia." Hayley Smorgon, Gaye Weeden, and Natalie King wrote in Cooking from Memory: A Journey Through Jewish Food that lobio (kidney beans) are a staple ingredient of Georgian Jewish food. A common Georgian Jewish dish they refer to is kharcho, "a thick, hearty soup with lamb, rice, onions, garlic, celery, tumeric and chilli." For Passover, Georgian Jews prepare a potato pancake called labda that's made from potatoes, walnuts, parsley, salt, black pepper, eggs, butter, and corn oil.

Dress. Rachel Arbel and Lily Magal inform us in their essay "Way of Life and Customs" for World Congress of Georgian Jews: "The clothing of Georgian Jews resembled that of the non-Jews, and up to the beginning of the 20th century Jews, too, wore the traditional Georgian costume. The women's garments consisted of a long-sleeved shirt of cotton or linen which served as an undergarment, above it a long-sleeved dress, open in the front, with a low neck revealing the undershirt. [...] The head-covering - chikhticopi - consisted of a velvet crown, sewn onto cardboard, embroidered with metal or colored silk thread and decorated with beads. [...] The men's garments included the chokha, a knee-length woolen coat - black, or sometimes grey, white or red. It was fitted to the waist and belted with a leather belt with a silver buckle. Across the chest were two ammunition belts decorated with ribbons. Beneath the chokha the men wore a high-necked white or black shirt, fastened with a line of tiny buttons."

Music and dance. Georgian Jews loved music and dancing. Arbel and Magal wrote that their instruments included the garmoni ("a kind of accordion"), the duduki ("a wooden wind instrument"), several string instruments, and drums.

Marriage customs. Most Georgian Jews wed as a result of arranged marriages and didn't know their spouses before the marriage ceremony (Blady, p. 145). The groom-to-be gave a gatzvila (bride-price) to his bride-to-be's parents (Blady, p. 145). After getting married, the groom would continue to live in the same house as his parents but his wife would, of course, join him (Blady, p. 144).

Religion and education. Georgian Jews were traditional rabbinical Jews for whom the synagogue played an important part of community life. They were guided by their rabbi, the hakham.

Further reading

  • Jewish Communities in Exotic Places by Ken Blady (Jason Aronson, 2000)

  • The History of Georgian Jews by Eldar Mamistvalishvili (Georgian Academic Book Publishing, 2014)